The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 22 October 2017

Track One:
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99

Track Two:
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96

I Thessalonians 1:1-10
St. Matthew 22:15-22

Background: Coinage in Israel

Herod Antipas ruled from 4 BCE until 39 CE, which coinage was minted in Tiberias, noted as such on the coin. Images were limited to plants (a reed or a wreath) or inscriptions. Herod Philip II (4 BCE – 34 CE) was the first to put portraits on coins, himself and the Roman Emperor. Augustus Caesar was thus depicted with the reverse showing Philip, Tetrarch. The reverse also showed a columned building, perhaps the temple. This is the common coinage that would have been used in Jesus’ time.

Track One:

First Reading: Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses longs to know God more deeply, for he is aware from God’s own word that he has an intimate relationship with the God of Jacob. He quotes God’s own words about that relationship, “I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.” Moses is aware of the responsibility he has in leading God’s chosen people into a new land, and so he plumbs God’s intentions. Moses operates from a primary assumption that the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah is still functional here and is the basis for the people’s relationship with God as well.

In the previous verses of this chapter we are reminded of the fiery cloud that preceded or guarded Israel in its journey. Moses wants to be assured that this burning presence will continue here as well. God assures with the words, “My presence shall go.” There is some importance to the words used here. The Hebrew vocable “panim” can either be translated as “presence” (the topic of this section of the pericope) or as “face” the topic addressed in the next section. Moses, thus assured of God’s continuing presence now wishes to see the other aspect – God’s face or glory. God grants the request but only partially. Protecting Moses with the palm of God’s hand (the tender part of the hand, the part which is used to hold things) God then passes in front of Moses, but Moses is protected from the glory. In a way this vision matches that experience that Elijah has at Horeb where God is known in a “still, small voice.”

Breaking open Exodus:
1.      What images come to your mind when thinking of God?
2.      What is Moses’ purpose in this story?
3.      What assurances do you seek from God?

Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

     The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2      The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3      Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4      "O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
5      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6      Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
7      He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8      Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
9      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

This psalm captures two aspects of the First Reading, the presence of God in the pillar of cloud, and the glory of God that is hidden from Moses. Here the psalm hints at God’s presence and glory “enthroned upon the cherubim.” These creatures, partly human (face) with a winged lion’s body, sat upon the top of the Ark of the Covenant, thus forming the Mercy Seat – the place of God’s presence (hidden). This psalm has a monarchial perspective, picturing God and describing God in royal terms. The community that is gathered is lead by prophet and priest, and they are named: Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Thus long after the wanderings and hardships of the wilderness, Israel still longs to identify its leaders.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
1.     What signals God’s majesty to you?
2.     Who are your religious leaders?
3.    Whence are they leading you?


Track Two:

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him--
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.

It would be not only interesting but also beneficial if both First Readings (one from Track One, and one from Track Two) could be read because they both deal with issues of agency and identity.  The shocking part of the Track One reading is that God would acquiesce to the requests of Moses, that he (Moses) be permitted to see God’s glory. God meets him half way. The shocking part of the Track Two reading is that God choses as God’s agent the Medo-Persian king Cyrus. The language of this oracle mirrors Psalm 2:6-7 and its enthronement language,

“I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
will proclaim the decree of the LORD,
he said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.”

Under this agency, Cyrus, probably unaware, is to accomplish YHWH’s will, “to subdue nations, ungird the loins of kings, and to open doors.” This will be seen when this same Cyrus releases daughters and sons of Jacob to return to their own lands, and their own God. God has not changed; only the agency has changed in his use of the foreign king. God is still the focus of power, and the only One. “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

Breaking open Isaiah
1.     How has God used earthly rulers to accomplish God’s will?
2.     Who make this claim but are really not led by God?
3.    Which earthly rulers do you admire?

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2      Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3      Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4      For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5      As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6      Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7      Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8      Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9      Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10    [Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."
11    Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12    Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13    He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.]

This psalm reiterates the themes of the last verses of the First Reading. It is God who is God; all other gods are “ungods.” The new song that Isaiah sang was one of recognizing that God had chosen someone apart from the Chosen People to be God’s agent. This psalm rejoices in all that God has done, and glories in God’s difference from the other gods. The realm of God’s rule is all-inclusive. Heavens, earth, field, and wood are called upon to praise the Lord.

Breaking open the Psalm 96:
1.     How has your faith changed over time?
2.     What ideas have you discarded or taken on?
3.    How has this “new song” been revealed to you?

Second Reading: I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

What was always included in a formal manner in Paul’s letters, a thanksgiving, and here is so long (1:2 – 3:13) that it serves as the actual main portion of the letter. The words of thanksgiving are repeated three times (1:2, 2:13, and 3:9). Some have seen this as evidence of three separate letters, but more than likely it just indicates an emphasis that Paul wants to make.

In his thanksgiving we are given some indications of from where the Thessalonian Christians have come. These are not members of a Jewish synagogue but more likely Gentile converts to Christianity. “And how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Here we are not only made aware of their origin, but also their new status as “servants” to the living God. The activity of the Spirit and of the Gospel has incorporated these people into God’s family and the community of faith. They are now members of the Covenant wrought in Jesus Christ.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1.     For what might Paul give thanks in your congregation?
2.     For what do you give thanks?
3.    Who has come into your church from the “outside”?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

This is a pertinent text in our time. The divine between religion and state, which we thought was an established assumption in our republic, has become again an active discussion. What do Jesus’ words have to say to us in our time? His words then were a rebut to the Pharisees who wanted to entrap Jesus in rabbinical questions. Jesus, however, not only avoids their trap, but also guides those who would follow him in the focus on godly things as opposed to worldly things.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What in your life is Caesar’s?
2.     What is God’s?
3.    In what ways do you serve both?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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